Defining Basic Morality
The term “basic morality” is one which I think of as the basis for ethical positions taken on any number of subjects. Basic morality is the moral vision which is shared by a whole community. Ethics is a shared group of moral values which help a community to exist. Basic morality is the foundation for a society that can function justly. Basic morality is the shared understanding of what is expected from all members of society.
Perhaps an illustration is called for here. As I write this, there is a group of five men working on the landscaping at a property I own. Basic morality says that since they are working, they are to be paid for their work. It would not be just for me to refuse to pay them. But I am going to only pay the company itself for the work. There is one man who is the owner of the company, therefore I am fulfilling my moral obligation in extending payment to the company through him. The company, in turn, is expected to pay the employees. That is the moral thing to do. The company cannot withhold payment from the workers without incurring moral judgement which could lead to legal judgement in a court of law.
There are several places in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures which call upon a person who employs another to pay that worker for his/her efforts. That is the “right thing” to do. Jesus (in Luke 10) referred to a verse in Deuteronomy when he said, “A workman is worthy of his hire.” When a person gives of her time for another, it is a basic morality obligation to remunerate her for her work.
All of this requires a mutually agreed upon basic morality. I did not ask each of the men who are working for me to arrive such and such a day at this time, and work. They arrived by agreement with the owner of the business. The various workmen do not expect me to pay them for their labor. It is understood by all of us that the company will pay them. Therefore, my observation is that basic morality leads to a system that is deemed to have justice at its core.
When we seek justice, we embody basic morality for our community. The commonly agreed upon moral order needs people who will “en-flesh” that moral order. The principles of the moral order need embodiment in society. The principles must be put into practice by people who are moral agents fully aware of the implications of their actions for society.
So, when you decide on a certain course of action for your life as a laborer, you are expecting (rightly so) that the person who hires you will treat you honestly. However, there are far too many occasions where employers are less than honest when dealing with their employees. It is when that happens that we all become moral/ethical thinkers who rely on a philosophical outlook to shape our response to the situation.
What is your take on this? Were you aware of being a philosopher when asking for a paycheck? Philosophy is not so abstract after all!
Moral Reasoning is Complicated
Moral reasoning is often complicated. Sure, many people claim to have a moral center which guides their actions, but is this really so? Perhaps a prior question would be, where do we learn our moral reasoning? Some might say, we learn moral reasoning in our religious community. Others will decide that their basic moral reasoning grew out of their education. Still others may point to several examples which show moral reasoning is inborn.
That’s Not Fair!
One does not need to look too far afield to see that children have a certain sense of justice very early in their lives. For example, a youngster whose parents may not have tried teaching moral reasoning discover that their child is doing just that. At a “play date,” little Jenny and her friend Ava get into a squabble over the toy truck they both desire to play with. Ava comes running to her Daddy with these words, “Jenny’s not fair.”
“Jenny’s not fair” is the result of basic moral reasoning. Fair dealing in our relations with others is a sound moral principle. But where did Ava get that idea and how does she arrive at Jenny’s fairness failure? Daddy Michael looks over at the other parent (Melissa) and asks why Jenny is not sharing with Ava? At that point both Michael and Melissa are confronted with the question, what is fair? That question is at the heart of most discussions of justice. And that question undergirds much of moral reasoning. The two children are forcing the parents to grapple with a question that has confronted humanity since the dawn of time.
Where does that concept come from?
One could spin this scenario out much further to include the thoughts racing through Melissa’s mind that this will be the last play date with the bully Ava who has previously fought with Jenny. Also, how does the idea of what is fair or not fair arise in a child’s mind?
Now, I do not claim to be a person who can answer this question directly from research into the brain development side of things. Instead, I begin from the theological idea that humanity is created in God’s image. One aspect of that is our ability to know the difference between good and evil. We know what it means to be obedient to the divine order of the world, its moral structure. And we know what it is to disregard that moral order.
Is moral reasoning instinctive?
Instinct is defined as “a natural tendency to behave in a particular way that people and animals are born with and that they obey without knowing why. For example the maternal instinct is a woman’s natural tendency to behave like a mother.”
The significant element in this is the idea that one does something but does not know why. When a child is exclaiming over the lack of fairness in another, it seems to arise from an instinctive knowledge of fairness. It is born into us.
To be human means …
Again, this becomes a philosophical issue when we try to define what it is to be human. Are we born as the so-called blank slate or do we have instincts? Since anyone who has witnessed a new-born immediately begin to nurse at the mother’s breast, it is difficult to deny at least some instinctual patterns. Yet we also know from easy observation that we instinctively know very little about how to survive in the world we live in.
These are topics for further investigation as we engage in an examination of moral reasoning. What do you think? Where does Ava’s insistence that Jenny is not playing fairly come from? Any thoughts?
Back in the days following Richard Nixon’s resignation, there was a lot of discussion about whether Gerald Ford should or should not grant Nixon a pardon. Once that pardon became a fact, the consensus among news reporters went something like this: The Nation has been traumatized by the Watergate scandal, and needs to stop obsessing over it. Therefore, Ford has done the right thing. Instead of focusing on past wrongs, the Presidency is now free to get back to running the country. (Italics added) For an idea on how pervasive this phrase is, google the phrase “running the country” and see how many places those words appear.
It’s the last phrase of that opinion I want to call attention to, because it has recently surfaced again. In his interview with George Stephanopoulos last week, President Trump said: “I do a good job running the country.”
Not the same as the Nation
What I’m about to say about that expression should not be taken as mere carping about words. The words phrasing a belief reflect how we think about it. The inaccurate phrase alters the belief itself over time when not phrased accurately . So the first thing I point to is that the Federal Government is not the same thing as our nation. The nation is made up of individuals who are members of many types of social communities, in addition to being citizen-participants in its government. For example, the nation includes marriages, families, schools, and churches. It also includes businesses, charity and artistic organizations, as well as unions, political parties, and clubs of various kinds.
We also point to the fact that the President does not even run the entire Federal Government. Whoever holds that office is the chief of the executive branch of the Federal Government, but does not “run” its two other components: the legislature (Congress) and the courts. And those limitations don’t yet include the fact that each state in the US also has its own government, which the President also doesn’t “run.”
Limits on Government
The idea of limits to executive power goes back a long way in the history of the US and of its ancestry in British common law. For centuries, a King or Queen of England was under legal restraints concerning entering a private home, for example. A King of England could knock at the door of a family’s dwelling, but needed permission to enter. The monarch is the head of the government. However, families (and other social communities) are not parts of the government. That is a fact even though these communities are surely included in the nation.
It was the Christian political thinker Abraham Kuyper who gave this idea its most cogent development in the early 20th century. Kuyper noticed that the scriptures recognize a number of different kinds of authority in social life. He pointed to the authority of the parents in a family or the owners in a business. The teachers in a school and the clergy in a church have a delimited sphere. This holds as well for the elected officials in government. He spoke of each distinct kind of authority as a “sphere” of life. He taught that each authority proper to a particular sphere had a God-given immunity from interference from authorities in other spheres. No one sphere can claim to be running the country.
We call this “sphere sovereignty.” It’s the reasoning behind our sense that something is wrong in certain situation. For example, when the government rather than parents tries to say what sort of education their children should have. Or when the government tries to require membership in a particular church. It’s also a violation of sphere sovereignty when special interest groups attempt to influence a government legislature in their favor,. Why? The task of the legislature is to achieve the common good. (for more on this, click here and here) As I put the point in The Myth of Religious Neutrality: “The Christian view of [government] is that [the government] should not favor Christianity… [It] requires that government… concentrate on the goal of bringing about a maximally just society for all people, whether they believe in God or not” (p. 319).
God is in Charge
This is why it’s so important not to let the expression “runs the country” get off without being called up short. On the Christian view, “there is no single social institution or [human] authority that is supreme over all the rest. And assigning such a status to any community is to have it usurp a status that belongs only to God” (p. 298).
Ethics and History
In our consideration of the place of ethics and our understanding of ethics, I have been playing around with some considerations from history. I would like to turn now to see how the Word of God addresses ethical issues. I’m going to call these next several blog entries my moral musings. (just to have some alliteration!)
In one of my earlier ponderings on ethics, I stated that, for me, a central text for my own understanding of what is ethical and moral arises from the prophet Micah’s declaration (in chapter 6:8),
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Chinese Exclusion Act 1882
I pondered this precept from God for many years already. I came to the realization that many who might quote this as their moral center, have failed to put it into practice. Too many of us have come to the point, along with much of Western culture, that if you are not caught and punished for some deed, it must be “OK.” The result? The laws of one’s land are the arbiter of what is good, moral, and just.
Here is one example that occurred in my country, the USA. In 1882, the Congress of the United States passed a law. It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law suspended all immigration into the United States from China. It was only supposed to be in effect for 10 years, but actually remained in effect for 61 years. It was changed in 1943 when China allied itself with the United States in World War II.
Was that ethical?
Now was the law moral, or ethical, or just? Many in that day thought the law was just. Why? Because, anyone with Asian features aroused deep suspicion among the rest of the population. Chinese people “flooded” into California following the 1849 Gold Rush. The populace already in California said the Chinese were “causing social disruption” to their communities. By 1943, much of the anti-Chinese sentiment had faded. And immigration began again with 105 (yes you read that correctly) Chinese allowed to immigrate every year.
Again, I have to wonder, why did those in authority believe that someone of Asian origin was suspect? How did they manage to listen to sermons on Micah 6? Did they not ask themselves if the laws of the nation in which they lived reflected God’s will for the nation as much as for an individual? Where does the pursuit of what is right: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God stop and the law of a country begin?
Is Morality only Personal?
Let’s ask ourselves, Do the laws of God extend to only me as a single person or are God’s laws also intended for the good of a whole society? As we muse on morality further in posts to come, let’s try to see how and if God’s will extends to counties as well as people. I hope you will join the discussion.